Plugged In: Don’t assume ‘auto’ is all-powerful

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

The focusing errors so common with modern autofocus cameras didn’t trouble Ansel Adams, Edward Weston or their contemporaries. A black cloth over the camera and their head to shut out light, a magnifier and the ground glass back were the only requirements for careful manual focus and brilliantly controlled, sharp images.

Focus

In some regards, high-quality photography took a step backward when autofocus cameras became the norm. As we noted last week, autofocus mechanisms in digital SLR cameras often go out of adjustment and require periodic recalibration for the sharpest results. Although many tend to blame soft images on supposedly mediocre lenses, missed focus and subtle camera shake are more often the culprits.

In my personal photography, I’ve found that manual focusing remains the most reliable means of assuring consistently sharp focus on the primary subject in tricky situations, regardless of the camera that I’m using. Manually focusing a modern dSLR camera is actually more difficult than older film cameras. The focusing screens of older models were specifically designed for manual focus, incorporating a central split-image feature and a surrounding microprism.

Those focusing aids are no longer included on standard dSLRs. For accurate manual focusing, you’ll need to buy and install an after-market focus screen. The best I’ve found are made by Katz-Eye and cost about $150. Installation is fairly simple but requires a steady hand. Inexpensive foreign-made screens are unusable.

Mirrorless-system cameras, such as those made by Olympus, Panasonic and Sony, are usually easier to focus manually because so much more information can be displayed in the electronic viewfinder or on the rear LCD screen. With my Olympus cameras, moving the focus ring automatically switches the viewfinder or rear screen to a highly magnified view that allows precise focus, as well as visually checking depth of field.

The most modern mirrorless-system cameras, such as the Olympus E-M5 II, include a “focus-peaking” viewfinder or rear LCD feature that outlines the areas in best focus with red or another contrasting color. It’s nice for quickly checking general focus, but I find that using a highly magnified image is more reliable when great accuracy is needed.

Exposure

Accurately rendering color is critical to high-quality photography. It’s easy to achieve with modern digital cameras and software-based calibration systems.

You should first ensure the accuracy of the computer and printer you’ll use to make your comparisons. X-Rite’s ColorMunki system is the least-expensive integrated hardware and software system available that automatically measures and sets your computer’s monitor to the correct brightness and color rendering for your specific hardware and viewing conditions.

The ColorMunki is not inexpensive, retailing at about $450, but any serious photographer will recoup its cost by greatly reducing wasted materials and time.

Next, calibrate your camera’s exposure and color rendering. Every individual camera and lens has its own quirks that affect accurate exposure. Every camera model captures and saves color in a unique way.

Although it’s possible to correct many exposure errors with post-processing software, photographs are technically best when the actual camera exposure is within 1/3 EV (one-third “stop”) of optimum.

Although digital cameras have come far over the past decade, it’s not uncommon to see even the best deviate by more than 1/3 EV from optimum exposure.

The traditional method of checking whether a camera requires any general exposure compensation is to photograph a large “18 percent gray” reference. Amazon sells a variety of them for about $9 each. That 18 percent gray reference matches the default exposure setting for digital cameras, which assume that every photo averages to 18 percent and gray sets exposure accordingly.

Fill the entire image area with the gray display and take the photo with no exposure compensation adjustment. Closely compare the 18 percent gray reference with the photo of it as displayed on your calibrated monitor, and perhaps a print of it. That comparison will allow you to determine whether your camera is generally giving an image too much or too little exposure, and, if so, how much. At that point, you’ll know the general exposure compensation adjustment, if any, required for optimum exposure with a particular camera.

Once you’ve calibrated your monitor and printer and understand how your camera exposes an image, it’s time to determine how your camera records color and make any adjustments needed for optimum color accuracy. I like X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passport system, a combination of a standardized set of reference color tiles and a software program that automatically creates a color profile from photographs you’ve taken of that color reference. It’s much more accurate than making manual comparisons and approximate adjustments.

Install the ColorChecker software on the same computer where Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop are installed. Once color profiles are calculated for each camera, they’re automatically stored where Adobe’s post-processing software can find them. After you’ve started Lightroom or Photoshop, change the “camera calibration” profile from “embedded” or “Adobe Standard” to the specific color profile you’ve created for that specific camera.

Although some of the calibrations and adjustments that we’ve discussed take time and some initial hardware and software investment, they’re fundamental to reliably high-quality photography and much less expensive than replacing cameras and lenses that don’t seem to be performing to their potential.

Art of satire contest

The Redoubt Reporter and ARTSpace, Inc., are sponsoring a satiric art writing contest open to everyone, with suitably satiric prizes. Parody pomposity! Release your inner philistine!

Good visual art either works or it doesn’t. Attaching pretentious, pompous writing that “explains” the image adds little value. Too often, though, boring images are subject to art “criticism” that seems to bear more resemblance to the writer’s inner projections than to the image itself or the artist’s intent.

In appreciation of delightfully horrid, florid writing, we’d like you to give it a try.

We’ve published several unmanipulated photos of real objects and scenes that appear abstract. Write some satiric commentary about one or more images, identifying which photo(s) you are satiring. Your parody should be plausible, pretentious-sounding and humorous.

I’m unwilling to hold anyone else’s images up to ridicule, so these are my own photos. Fire away! When the Redoubt Reporter publishes our favorite submitted satires, we’ll tell you what these photos really are.

The images and more information can be found online at http://www.redoubtreporter.wordpress.com.

Email entries to redoubtreporter@alaska.net. Be sure to mention which photo(s) you are referencing. Entries on each photo should be no more than 150 words. Tell us your name and a little about yourself — profession (or school you attend if you’re a student), where you live and any art background you might have. The deadline to submit is Dec. 7.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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Filed under photography, Plugged in

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